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Agriculture Dept Beefs up Religious Freedom in the Workplace

USDA Logo 2
USDA Logo 2

It all started with a copy of an article on a break room table at the West Michigan Beef Company outside Grand Rapids.

According to Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the piece expressed the view that marriage is a special relationship between a man and a woman.

ADF's clients, company owners Donald and Ellen Vaner Boon, say a USDA food inspector removed the article and then threatened to remove all USDA inspectors from the plant if the Vander Boons returned the article to the table. The inspector cited an Obama-era harassment policy as justification.

The threat to remove the inspectors was effectively a threat to shut down the business because federal law requires USDA inspectors to be present at meat-packing plant operations.

Now, the Trump administration has made it clear that viewpoint discrimination has no place in the USDA workplace. In other words, people are allowed to talk about their beliefs. They've released a guidance memorandum and an FAQ piece explaining their policy that took effect earlier this year.

The FAQ document highlights opinions about same-sex marriage, gender identity and sexual morality as "matters of public importance."

It says: "USDA respects the First Amendment rights of USDA personnel as well as non-USDA personnel working at facilities inspected by USDA to share their varying viewpoints on these topics, whether through oral discussion, the display or distribution of literature or other means."

In May, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue had issued a First Amendment policy statement that explained that employees can engage in religious expression directed at other employees, even attempting to persuade them of their views. Supervisors can also share their religious beliefs as long as they do not "impose unfair work conditions on employees who do not share their religious beliefs."

The policy also noted that employers in USDA-inspected facilities are allowed to post religious icons and pamphlets in work areas.

ADF Senior Counsel Jonathan Scruggs called the USDA action "another good sign that the Trump administration is taking free speech and religious freedom seriously."

Likewise, the Family Research Council praised the action.


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